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Discriminatory Questions Are Plaguing the Interview Process

A businesswoman talking to a businessman in an office.

​Illegal interview and hiring practices are causing job seekers to abandon the process and are harming companies, according to a survey of 1,200 job candidates by software company Greenhouse in New York City.

The report, released in October, revealed that about one-third of candidates (34 percent) have experienced discriminatory interview questions, with the most common questions focused on age (34 percent), race (28 percent) and gender (24 percent).

"The report revealed the red flags that candidates continue to face in the hiring process," said Ariana Moon, head of talent planning and acquisition at Greenhouse. "It's clear that companies have work to do to ensure they have an inclusive and fair hiring process."

Candidates had also been asked about their:

  • Marital status (22 percent).
  • Religion (20 percent).
  • National origin (19 percent).
  • Parental status (18 percent).
  • Weight (14 percent).
  • Sexuality (13 percent).
  • Genetic information (12 percent).

In addition to asking discriminatory questions, some employers are biased against individuals with complex-sounding names, who often are people of color and are about 10 percent less likely on average than those with easier-to-pronounce names to land an academic job, according to a 2022 working paper.

Nearly one-fifth of job seekers in the Greenhouse survey (19 percent) have changed their names on a job application or their resume. Among those who changed their names, 45 percent did so to sound "less ethnic," 42 percent to sound younger and 22 percent to sound like the opposite gender.

"I think this is a sobering truth that shows how many candidates don't feel psychologically safe about their identity in the hiring process," Moon said.

EEOC Outlines Discriminatory Interview Questions

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends that companies avoid asking applicants about personal characteristics that are protected by law, including race, color, religion, sex, national origin and age.

According to the EEOC, employers should avoid questions such as:

  • Are you biracial?
  • Which church do you attend?
  • What language(s) do you speak at home?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Do you plan to have children within the next year?

"These types of questions may discourage some individuals from applying, may be viewed suspiciously by some applicants, and may be considered evidence of intent to discriminate by the EEOC," according to the agency. "If you do not have this information when you decide who to hire, it may be easier for you to defend your business against a hiring discrimination complaint."

In August, the EEOC sued GMRI Inc., which does business as restaurant chain Olive Garden, after a manager allegedly asked a job candidate questions about his disability and declined to hire the individual due to information learned from those questions. The lawsuit alleges the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

[SHRM Online: How to Keep Hiring Managers from Asking Inappropriate Interview Questions]

The Dangers of 'HR Arrogance'

Talia Fox, CEO of consulting firm KUSI Global in Washington, D.C., and author of The Power of Conscious Connection: 4 Habits to Transform How You Live and Lead (IdeaPress, 2023), said HR professionals and hiring teams should be trained on equal employment opportunity guidelines to ensure they know what questions should be avoided to prevent hiring discrimination complaints.

However, she explained that some HR professionals discover loopholes, using subtle cues from names or social media to infer these details.

"I call it 'HR arrogance,' " she said. "This is when HR professionals really believe that their personal and cultural opinions about people can determine success. For instance, I was once asked if my mother was considering relocating to my area to babysit, implying if I'd have someone to look after my children for after-hours work."

Fox discussed how a discriminatory interview process can impact a business:

  • Hiring professionals who exhibit bias in the recruitment process might also introduce policies and practices that create a toxic culture. It's crucial to nurture a culture rooted in values and principles, with HR teams held accountable for upholding a principles-based organization.
  • Reliance on bias and discrimination isn't a sustainable strategy for any organization's long-term health. Building an inclusive culture grounded in core values and principles, demonstrated by HR practices, paves the way for organizational growth.

Recruiters and hiring managers have to be intentional about ensuring interview questions focus on the most relevant aspects of the position they're interviewing for, which is the essence of structured hiring, Moon said. Companies that don't prioritize mitigating bias and training their employees are more at risk of their interviewers unknowingly asking discriminatory questions.

"Potential litigation is a serious repercussion," Moon noted. "However, whether or not that happens, asking discriminatory questions can harm a company's brand."


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